CORVALLIS, Ore. - Nuclear energy experts from more than a dozen nations will meet at Oregon State University beginning Aug. 29 to confer on the latest advances being made in "passively-safe" nuclear reactor systems that could herald the future of nuclear power around the world.
The technology is well advanced for these nuclear reactors, which are being designed in the United States as factory-built systems with prior regulatory approval. Experts say that reactors of this type could soon begin construction, a renaissance for an industry that has been stalled for decades.
The professional conference, sponsored by the International Atomic Energy Association of the United Nations, will explore systems that have been developed in the United States and by other nations, as this new generation of nuclear plant designs come closer to a working reality.
Nuclear power, experts say, is gaining renewed interest as an energy source because it has no "greenhouse gas" emissions that raise concerns for global warming. It is increasingly reliable and cost-competitive, could lessen the nation's dependence on fossil fuels, and now has available plants with enhanced safety features that never before existed. Some reactors would also be able to produce hydrogen for use as an alternative fuel for automobiles - possibly the future of the U.S. automotive industry.
In the past decade OSU has become a leader in the development and testing of these new "passively-safe" nuclear designs. It has conducted test programs funded at more than $13 million that allowed the first two plans of this type in the United States to gain final design approval.
"I'm confident that within the next five years you are going to see new nuclear plants constructed in the United States using the new passive-safety features that we've helped test," said Jose Reyes, professor and chair of the OSU Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics. "We're moving toward a new safety culture in the development of nuclear power, and the upcoming conference should be another important step in moving these designs closer to actual production."
Passively-safe reactor designs use natural forces such as gravity or convection to replace multiple pumps, pipes and valves. To be certified, testing and analyses must show that a passively-safe plant can cool itself for three days under worst-case conditions without operator actions.
As designed by Westinghouse Corp., and tested by OSU, the new AP600 and AP1000 reactor designs would be constructed in factories in large sections and transported by rail to the desired location, cutting construction time by about 70 percent, from a decade to three years or less.
Over the life of the plant they should be able to produce electricity at about two cents per kilowatt hour, less expensive than almost any energy form other than hydroelectric power. A streamlined certification process is in place to minimize delays and costs.
Even more advances are on the drawing board, Reyes said.
"In cooperation with the Idaho National Laboratory and the Nexant-Bechtel Corp., we're going to create a truly modular reactor design that could produce about 50 megawatts each of power, be totally self-contained for transport and would help address a number of security and safety concerns," Reyes said. "For instance, they would require no on-site fueling. Small systems such as this could be combined for a wide range of energy demands, or used in combination with the larger systems already approved."
Safety of the new systems has been improved by an order of magnitude over older designs, officials say, some of which had an estimated "core melt" possibility of one chance in a million. The newest designs have reduced that risk to one chance in 10 to 100 million.
"Issues of terrorism are more of a concern than they used to be, and that's one reason we're building reactors that are extraordinarily strong," Reyes said. "Our newest design would sit in an underground silo and have a very low profile, able to run five straight years with almost no maintenance. These are remarkable systems in which safety is the dominant consideration."
One of the most intriguing of the future designs, Reyes said, is the "very high temperature" thermal reactor that could crack water into its hydrogen and oxygen components, giving it the ability to produce hydrogen for fuel as well as generate electricity. A 600-megawatt reactor such as this might be able to produce the energy equivalent of 300,000 gallons of gasoline a day, he said.
Even existing nuclear power plants have increased their efficiency in recent years, OSU officials say, in the process producing the power equivalent of 30 new nuclear plants. Interest in the entire industry is sufficiently increased, Reyes said, that nuclear engineering education programs at universities around the nation are now growing again after years of decline.
Management of nuclear waste disposal is an issue that's made considerable progress but still faces some political hurdles and needs to be finalized, officials say. Nations sending representatives to the Oregon conference include Japan, Germany, France, Canada, India, Argentina, Italy, Russia, Spain, Switzerland and others.
All of these nations are developing their own version of passively-safe reactors and the conference will feature technical dialogues as well as other cultural and scientific exchanges.
The conference will also include tours of OSU's Advance Plant Experiment Reactor Facility. This one-quarter scale model of the AP1000 has proven invaluable in simulating and testing the safety features of the new design.